FERC Order 800 eases hydropower regulations

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has issued an order streamlining its regulations for some small hydropower projects.  FERC Order No. 800 conforms the Commission's regulations to the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act of 2013.  Between Order 800 and the Hydropower Efficiency Act, regulatory processes for developing some small hydropower projects have recently become easier.

Hydropower is one of the nation's most abundant sources of renewable energy -- and yet about 97 percent of the estimated 80,000 dams in the United States do not generate electricity.  While not all are great candidates for hydropower, some non-power dam sites offer significant opportunities to generate renewable electricity with minimal incremental environmental impact.

Congress had these dams in mind when it enacted the Hydropower Efficiency Act on August 9, 2013.  To encourage the use of these dams for electric generation, the Act aims to reduce the costs and regulatory burden on project developers during the project study and licensing stages.  In particular, the Act amended previous statutory provisions covering both preliminary permits and projects that are exempt from licensing.  These statutory changes prompted FERC to update its regulations to conform to the Hydropower Efficiency Act.

Order No. 800 formalizes the Commission's compliance procedures in its revised regulations on preliminary permits, small conduit hydroelectric facilities, and small hydroelectric power projects, and in a new subpart on qualifying conduit hydropower facilities.  Key changes include:
  • New regulations recognize the Commission's new statutory authority to extend a preliminary permit once for not more than two additional years, allowing permittees up to 5 total years to complete their feasibility studies without facing possible competition for the site from others.
  • Exempt small conduit hydroelectric facilities may now be located on federal lands, and all exempt small conduit hydroelectric facilities may now have an installed capacity of up to 40 megawatts.  Previously, non-municipal small conduit exemptions were limited to 15 megawatts.
  • Exempt small hydroelectric power project facilities may now have an installed capacity of up to 10 megawatts.
  • Qualifying conduit hydropower facilities, which do not require licensure under the Federal Power Act but do require the filing with FERC of a notice of intent to construct, are now covered under the regulations.
While several of these categories of facility appear similar, each is defined separately by statute.
  • A small conduit hydroelectric facility, as defined in section 30 of the Federal Power Act, is an existing or proposed hydroelectric facility that utilizes for electric power generation the hydroelectric potential of a conduit, or any tunnel, canal, pipeline, aqueduct, flume, ditch, or similar manmade water conveyance that is operated for the distribution of water for agricultural, municipal, or industrial consumption and not primarily for the generation of electricity.
  • A small hydroelectric power project, as defined in the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 (PURPA), is a project that utilizes for electric generation the water potential of either an existing non-federal dam or a natural water feature (e.g., natural lake, water fall, gradient of a stream, etc.) without the need for a dam or man-made impoundment.
  • A qualifying conduit hydropower facility, as defined in the Hydropower Efficiency Act, is a facility that meets the following qualifying criteria: (1) the facility would be constructed, operated, or maintained for the generation of electric power using only the hydroelectric potential of a non-federally owned conduit, without the need for a dam or impoundment; (2) the facility would have a total installed capacity that does not exceed 5 MW; and (3) the facility is not licensed under, or exempted from, the license requirements in Part I of the FPA on or before the date of enactment of the Hydropower Efficiency Act (i.e., August 9, 2013).
In Order 800, the Commission is merely formalizing several practices it has already adopted since the enactment of the Hydropower Efficiency Act.  For example, the Commission has issued two-year extensions to preliminary permit holders, granted a small conduit exemption on federal lands, and issued conduit facility determinations on whether proposed projects are qualifying conduit hydropower facilities.  Nevertheless, the Act and Order No. 800 work together to offer an easier regulatory path for developers of small hydropower projects without new dams.

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